House Stands Up for Big Business, Spurns Transparency*

by Gary Therkildsen*, 5/27/2011

On Wednesday evening, during House debate of the fiscal year (FY) 2012 defense authorization bill, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) introduced and won agreement to an amendment that would prevent the federal government from requiring potential contractors – which would include many large corporations – to disclose their political contributions to the public.

The amendment is a direct challenge to the Obama administration's draft executive order (EO) on contractor disclosure, a common sense transparency initiative supported by many small businesses, the good government community, and advocates for campaign finance reform, and rabidly opposed by big business and their agents in Washington.

GOP: How dare average citizens demand that powerful business interests disclose how they’re influencing the political process.

The amendment passed 261-163, with all but one Republican having voted in the affirmative. Given the conservative makeup of the House, along with the GOP's fidelity to corporate interests and its reflexive responses to most of President Obama's policies, the final vote isn’t surprising.

The amendment's adoption, however, should extinguish any lingering doubts that the House majority’s championing of government transparency is anything but empty rhetoric. It seems House Republicans are for openness only if it has the potential to embarrass or score political points against the Obama administration, and as long as it doesn’t challenge entrenched special interests.

In addition to the entire Republican caucus – sans a very brave Walter Jones Jr. (NC) – 26 Democrats broke ranks to back the Cole anti-transparency amendment – demonstrating that powerful special interests also have their grasp of many within the House minority.

The following members – who have heavy concentrations of federal contractors in their districts, are beholden to business interests in general, or are members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition – should be ashamed of their votes:

Jason Altmire (PA)Norm Dicks (WA)Collin Peterson (MN)
John Barrow (GA)Marcia Fudge (OH)Mike Ross (AR)
Sanford Bishop (GA)Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX)Dutch Ruppersberger (MD)
Dan Boren (OK)Jim Matheson (UT)Bobby Scott (VA)
Russ Carnahan (MO)Mike McIntyre (NC)Heath Shuler (NC)
Ben Chandler (KY)Gregory Meeks (NY)Jackie Speier (CA)
Gerry Connolly (VA)Jim Moran (VA)Bennie Thompson (MS)
Jim Cooper (TN)Bill Owens (NY)Maxine Waters (CA)
Henry Cuellar (TX)Ed Pastor (AZ)

As if reading from the same Chamber of Commerce talking point, backers of Cole’s amendment and similar stand-alone legislation recently introduced in Congress uniformly contend they’re trying to prevent the White House from injecting politics into the federal contracting process.

As Sean Parnell of the conservative, let's-allow-unlimited-corporate-money-to-dominate-the-political-process Center for Competitive Politics ridiculously claims: the Cole amendment is a “strong rebuke to the executive branch's effort to bring politics into the federal contracting process and enable the creation of a Nixon-style Enemies List.”

This nonsensical line of reasoning is wrong for two reasons. First, the draft EO says nothing about requiring federal agencies to examine a potential contractor’s political spending. The disclosure is for the benefit of the public and the public alone. Moreover, if there’s a concern about potential abuses, opponents could be arguing for the White House to tweak the EO to make it clearer on this point, resolving any potential concern.

Second, opponents have it backwards: the disclosure EO wouldn’t introduce a pay-to-play scheme in contracting – as it already exists – but would actually help to root it out. Large contractors, like Boeing and General Electric (GE), pool millions of dollars together through political action committees (PAC), and in turn contribute to public officials. These companies don’t selflessly contribute this money; they treat it as an investment and expect a reasonable return.

And the situation has only gotten worse since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, as even more money is pouring into our campaign system through obscure third party groups.

Of course, plenty of state and local governments have adopted disclosure initiatives similar to the draft EO in an attempt to battle pay-to-play contracting. And those initiatives are paying off. If states are the laboratory of our democracy, then it makes sense to take those policies that states have made work and apply them at the federal level.

*This post has been updated to better reflect the mission of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP). In response to this post, CCP President Sean Parnell complained that OMB Watch "falsely sez [sic] CCP opposes all disclosure." It was wrong of me to make that claim, because CCP supports the disclosure, as Sean says, of "large contribs [sic] to candidates/parties."

Of course, that's the problem with limited disclosure, especially in a post-Citizens United environment: it does nothing to check the powerful "free speech" (i.e. spending ability) of corporations from running roughshod over the voices of average citizens. Championing limited disclosure, however, does allow an organization like CCP to claim support of "disclosure" all the while attacking any policy that impinges on corporations' ability to determine the outcome of elections.

Image by Flickr user Craig S used under a Creative Commons license.

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